Historical Context

Colonial Exploration and Expansion
Rather than being set in a single historical context, The Witch of Blackbird Pond might be better considered in light of several overlapping historical contexts, all of which would have shaped the world and characters of the novel in different ways. The first of these is that of colonial exploration and expansion. The Witch of Blackbird Pond opens in 1687 and is set in Connecticut Colony. This is less than 60 years after the famous landing of the Mayflower in 1620 and roughly 50 years since the River Colony was founded in 1636. The River Colony combined with two other colonies, Saybrook Colony (founded 1644) and New Haven Colony (founded 1662) to become Connecticut Colony. These factors combine to mean that older characters such as Hannah Tupper may well remember the origins of their community. The multiple origins of the colony also meant that though the colony is relatively new and relatively homogeneous in ethnicity and religion, it has known political change and historical diversity; these period farmers and craftsmen are politically savvy in many ways.

Protestant Reformation
However, these northern colonies most often referred to in the novel (Massachusetts and Connecticut) were not just new political entities. They were very deeply devoted to living religious lives and as such should be viewed as one of several ongoing expressions of the Protestant Reformation. While popular unrest regarding the abuses within the Catholic church had existed for decades earlier, the traditional starting date for the Reformation is Martin Luther's dramatic nailing of his 95 theses to the church door in 1517. This started a wave of what was intended to be reform internal to the church and meant to bring decadent existing practices into line with the ideals articulated in the Bible. When this proved impossible, new religious denominations formed: Lutherans, Anabaptists, Presbyterians, and Anglicans all branched off, each making its own interpretation of the Bible and developing worship practices and codes of conduct based on those interpretations.

The Puritans who founded Connecticut had themselves rebelled against the Anglican church in the late sixteenth century. At first they were “merely” dissenters against England’s official church and were...

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Topics for Further Study

  • Review any of the available firsthand accounts written by inhabitants of the New England colonies. Examine what they give their attention to, as opposed to where Speare focuses her novel. Consider how closely these align, where and how they differ, and why.
  • Kit is rather relaxed and accepting of slavery, as one might expect her to be, given that she grew up with the practice. Research period arguments against slavery. Which of these would be effective to a young girl like Kit from the seventeenth century?
  • Hannah Tupper’s Quaker philosophy is mentioned but not explained in any real detail. Research Quaker history and philosophy until you can explain why it might threaten the Puritan worldview as it did.
  • Several British colonies are mentioned in this novel. Research their origins and the nature of their economies. How differently are they organized, what are they trading, and how will these political and economic factors pull them in different directions? In other words, why wasn’t someplace like Barbados, which was very much part of the same trading network and extended British colonial society, part of the United States when the colonies rebelled?
  • The Puritans emphasized a literal interpretation of the Bible and put great energy into reading and understanding it. Research the Puritan view of the world and the perspectives held by contemporary Christian denominations that emphasize strict interpretations of the Bible. How are their worldviews similar, and how do they differ?
  • The Puritans of Wethersfield put a lot of energy and attention into policing the actions of community members. Their efforts ranged from fining Hannah Tupper for not attending worship services to hitting boys whose attention wandered during those services with sticks. Since that time, such an active emphasis on policing community virtue has fallen away. Research and consider that change. When did attitudes toward such activity change? Were they the same at the time of the American Revolution?

Media Adaptations

An audiobook version of The Witch of Blackbird Pond was issued in 2003 by Listening Library/Random House. Mary Beth Hurt reads the novel, and the adaptation takes 6.5 hours.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Like The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible (1952) dramatizes the New England witch trials. Also like The Witch of Blackbird Pond, The Crucible was written in the 1950s, when the McCarthy anti-Communist “witch hunts” occurred.
  • Calico Captive (1957), another of Elizabeth George Speare’s novels for young adults, follows young Miriam Willard and her family when they are captured by Indians.
  • Elizabeth George Speare published The Bronze Bow in 1961, and it won her a second Newbery Award the following year. Like her other historical novels, this features a young protagonist trying to fit into a community in flux. However, this one leaves Speare’s favorite setting of early New England behind: it is set in the time and place of Jesus, and deals with the period’s religious and political upheaval.
  • John Holbrook reads Anne Bradstreet’s poems aloud to the Wood family one evening. Bradstreet was one of the first major American writers and was the first major American poet. Her works will give glimpses into the mind of a Puritan woman from that period.
  • Jerry Spinelli’s young adult novel Stargirl (2000) has a contemporary setting, but it also features an unconventional heroine who is shunned by her community. Like Kit, Stargirl is compassionate to those whom the community would have her ignore, has magical powers attributed to her, and is shunned for her actions.
  • If you can find some of them, the works of Cotton Mather will give another useful point of view on the Puritan mind. A major Puritan religious leader, Mather wrote several hundred books and pamphlets, including some against witchcraft, and was friends with some of the judges at the Salem Witch Trials.
  • William Bradford sailed over on the Mayflower and was one of the leaders of the colony at Plymouth. He kept diaries, and his book History of Plymouth Plantation gives a firsthand account of the first decades of life in colonial New England.
  • This New Land by G. Clifton Wisler (1987) is another fictional account written for young adults focusing on a child protagonist (narrator Richard Woodley is 12), and like The Witch of Blackbird Pond, This New Land follows the Pilgrims as they came over on the Mayflower.
  • Beyond the Burning Time (1996) by Katherine Lasky is another novel for young readers about the seventeenth-century witchcraft scares. This one focuses on an even younger protagonist than Kit; Mary, age 12, goes through the witch scare in Massachusetts.


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The events of the tale begin in April 1687 and continue through the following spring. Wethersfield, the principal scene of the action, is...

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Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

One of Speare's outstanding achievements as a writer is her ability to create a strong sense of place. In The Witch of Blackbird Pond,...

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Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

There is little in The Witch of Blackbird Pond that is likely to offend readers, though one reviewer has taken issue with the...

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Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Why does Speare load the first chapter with so many important characters? Are all the principal characters well drawn?

2. Does...

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Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Explain Kit's process of maturation in the novel.

2. Is Speare's description of the Puritan society in New England...

(The entire section is 109 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Buskin, Barbara H., and Karen H. Harris. Notes from a Different Drummer: A Guide to Juvenile Fiction Portraying the Handicapped. New...

(The entire section is 226 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

Apseloff, Marilyn Fain. 1991. Elizabeth George Speare. Twayne’s United States Authors Series 541. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International.

Bartlett, Robert M. 1978. The faith of the Pilgrims: An American heritage. New York: United Church Press.

Beetz, Kirk H. 1990. Beacham’s guide to literature for young adults. Vol. 3. Washington, DC: Beacham Publishing.

Codgill, Oline H. 2003. Showtime. South Florida Sun-Sentinel, January 17, 35.

Langdon, William Chauncy. 1937. Everyday things in American life, 1607-1776. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Polk, William R. 2006. The birth of America: From before Columbus to the revolution. New York: HarperCollins.

Schwebel, Sara L. 2003. Historical fiction and the classroom: Elizabeth George Speare’s The witch of blackbird pond. Children’s Literature in Education 34(3): 195-218.

Sullivan, Robert. 1994. Elizabeth G. Speare, 84, author of children’s historical novels. New York Times, November 16, D24.

Speare, Elizabeth George. 1958. The witch of blackbird pond. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Further Reading
Cheatham, Bertha M., and Cohen, Andrew. 1989. Speare given Wilder Medal. School Library Journal 35(6): 13-14. This article reflects on Elizabeth George Speare’s body of work on the occasion of her receiving a major award. Anita Silver, editor of the Hornbook, comments on how Speare’s work was marked by historical accuracy and a feeling for both setting and character.

McElmeel, Sharron L. 1999. 100 most popular children’s authors: Biographical sketches and bibliographies. Portsmouth, NH: Libraries Unlimited. This reference work gives a brief overview of Speare’s life and career.

Nesti, Robert. 2002. Theater review: Roots of prejudice explored at Wheelock’s “Blackbird Pond.” Boston Herald, November 20, 59. This review discusses a contemporary stage adaptation of the novel.

Thuente, Mary-Helen. 1985. Beyond historical fiction: Speare’s The witch of blackbird pond. English Journal 74(6): 50-55. Thuente argues that the novel succeeds so well because of Speare’s skill in blending realistic fiction with the symbolic structures of the folktale.

Weir, William. 2002. Stirring up lively debate: Witchcraft? Some want books removed from school system. Hartford Courant, August 27, B3. This brief article summarizes a recent debate over attempts to remove The Witch of Blackbird Pond from school reading lists because it promotes witchcraft. Interested readers will be able to find a series of letters to the editor following up on this original article.

Weisman, Kay. 2006. 15 historical classics. Booklinks, July, 59-61. This brief article discusses The Witch of Blackbird Pond as one of a number of classic historical novels for young adult readers.